The best performance of the year (so far)

Writer-director Alex Ross Perry and actress Elisabeth Moss have a special relationship: He puts her through the wringer and she acts her guts out. 

In two films, this year’s “Her Smell” and 2015’s “Queen of Earth” — deep-dish psychological studies of women flailing and wailing on the verge — the result is explosive symbiosis, a convulsive give and take between a director who lays out a vision and lets his muse run with it at breathtaking velocity. 

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Run she does, maybe too far, too fast (as some have argued). Moss’ performance in “Her Smell” is athletically interior and exterior, jagged with physical fits and spasms like a lunatic child having a druggy temper tantrum. It’s my favorite performance of the year so far. 

Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a hot, cackling cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois, Charles Manson and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw-nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze.

Eyes drizzling mascara, teeth gnashing, arms and hair thrashing, lipstick smeared with a paint-roller, Moss spews apoplectic, apocalyptic poetry in what’s less a performance than a detonation of eye-popping possession. It’s an electric and crazily entertaining one-woman show, the kind Oscar never sees and wouldn’t know what to do with anyhow.

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What grabs you is the devotion Moss brings to both Becky in “Her Smell” and the more quietly unhinged, clinically depressed Catherine in “Queen of Earth.” Dramatically different than her more contained, yet reliably strong women in “Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Top of the Lake,” these characters are solipsistic, narcissistic, unbalanced, straight-up unwell. 

Director Perry grants them close-up, single-take soliloquies that are so chiseled they avoid becoming indulgent workshop exercises. The camera eye stares Moss down, never letting her off the hook. Moss gives right back. You watch shaken, exhilarated.

It’s important to note Moss isn’t performing in a vacuum, despite the fact the characters, especially punker Becky, would make arresting (abrading?) Off-Broadway solo turns. Both films have slight but linear stories — they are the definition of soul-baring character examinations — populated with superb co-stars, from the bandmates and manager (Eric Stoltz, wonderful to see you) in “Her Smell” to the great, flinty Katherine Waterston as Moss’ increasingly estranged best friend in “Queen of Earth.”

Without other players, Moss’ fascinating creations would just be feral, foundering head cases bouncing off the walls and slipping into oblivion. Her cast-mates keep Becky and Catherine in reality, our world. They are friends and antagonists, yang to Moss’ yin, and they haul her from the edge.

Still, what this formidable actress pulls off on her own, between her and the camera, is remarkable. With scary conviction, she summons wrenching human meltdowns in all their grim and glorious beauty.

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“Her Smell” and “Queen of Earth” are on DVD and several streaming outlets. 

“Her Smell” trailer HERE.

“Queen of Earth” trailer HERE.

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